by Rick LoBello, iloveparks.com
Yesterday when I learned the news of how the World Health Organization was raising the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5, I came across a picture I took several weeks ago near my home in West El Paso. It is a picture of another construction site where like most construction sites in El Paso the earth was leveled and desert habitat completely destroyed. I will never understand why developers cannot find ways to save more of the habitat they are destroying so that native plants and animals still have a chance of surviving. So few people in our community seem to care about what is happening to desert animals like the roadrunners, rock squirrels, whiptail lizards and kangaroo rats, let alone the great diversity of desert plants, who live in these places.
If more of us only knew, if more of us were connected to the natural world that surrounds us, the situation we are in would be much different. How can we survive this pandemic and future pandemics without protecting the natural world we share the planet with? Even our new President seems to be missing the point. He said in his 100 day news conference that he has about seven or eight big problems to deal with including the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu. He should have said 8 or 9 big problems and added to his list how human activities are increasingly threatening the world’s biodiversity.
Mara Burney, a research associate at the American Council on Science and Health, wrote a report published in 2002 by Harvard Medical School on why biodiversity is a public health issue. She said “Biodiversity -- the variety of life, ecosystems, species, populations, and genes -- may at first seem like an issue merely for the environmentalists and hippies, far removed from the medical community. But if you think that the recent flurry of deadly emergent diseases such as SARS, Ebola, bird flu, West Nile, and even AIDS are unrelated to environmental issues -- think again. “
If we don’t get serious about the loss of biodiversity, and getting serious starts in our own backyard, we will no doubt lose an incredible wealth of potential medical treatments. Some of these treatments could possibly help scientists develop cures for pandemic diseases and new ways to help with disease prevention.
To quote Burney again “Consider the cancer drug Taxol, made from the Pacific yew tree; which was initially derived from poppies; and Artemisia, which yielded treatments for resistant strains of malaria. In addition, microbes -- the most diverse organisms on the planet -- also hold promise: aminoglycosides, a group of antibiotics used in the treatment of severe infections, were derived from a bacterium found in tropical soil. Animal species too are treasure troves of medicines: the cone snail yields a toxin (recently FDA-approved under the name "Prialt") that is a thousand times more potent than morphine as a painkiller but does not lead to tolerance or addiction. That same snail also yields a broad-spectrum anti-epileptic used for the treatment of intractable epilepsy. It should go without saying that the destruction of species such as these means that potential cures are lost forever. Even species that may seem inconsequential to human life (like soil microbes or cone snails) actually have the potential to improve human life greatly -- if they are not driven to extinction.
Who is to say that potential cures for this pandemic and future pandemics are waiting to be discovered right here in our own backyard, the Chihuahuan Desert? Do we have the wisdom and the will to turn things around before it is too late?
Here are four steps that every community, every nation needs to take to deal with one the biggest problems facing our world today:
1. Launch a full blown education campaign where every member of the community is engaged with information on why protecting biodiversity is important the survival of the human race and how they can take action in their daily lives.
2. Establish new laws and regulations to protect the biodiversity that remains in our communities and surrounding habitats paying close attention to current threats to habitat loss and the decline in native plant and animal populations.
3. Enact full or partial moratoriums on all new developments where wild habitats are being destroyed. At the same time develop strategic plans on how developments can continue that provide for both people and native plants and animals.
4. Develop plans designed to restore native habitats where plants and animals have been seriously impacted and need our help to recover to sustainable population levels.
We need to start seriously thinking about not only the “change we can believe in” but also the “changes we must take” to survive the environmental situation we are living in. If we don’t then nothing else will matter, not wars, not energy independence, not the economy, or much of anything else.